I’m Cheryl. Fly Me.

Why flight attendants rock

Words: Lee Tulloch

A few months ago, a newspaper ran an online poll asking participants if they felt being a flight attendant was a glamorous or desirable job. Only 36% responded with a positive answer.

That number may have plummeted to single digits since then. A Qantas Flight 28 from Santiago to Sydney was struck with a serious outbreak of gastro, affecting 26 passengers on a 14-hour flight. It wasn’t the fault of the airline – the virus was picked up on the ground – but it was the Qantas flight attendants who had to deal with the mass vomiting and diarrhoea that ensued. Glamorous, much?

The term ‘flight attendant’ is gender neutral and, of course, they come in all sexes (I say all because there were transgender flight attendants on Thailand’s P.C. Air and possibly elsewhere.) But the idea of  ‘glamour’ in the skies has traditionally attached to women, so I ask all the stewards out there to forgive me if I concentrate on their female colleagues.

The first female flight attendant was hired by United Airlines in 1930. Like all ‘stewardesses’ she was a qualified nurse, a skill that would not have gone astray on QF28. Male stewards were earlier employed to carry food, but by the mid-thirties it was a predominantly female profession.

Sex sold airline seats. Stewardesses were soon portrayed as flying geishas, catering to a cabin of privileged passengers, who were mainly businessmen. Strict guidelines about appearance were introduced – ‘air hostesses’ couldn’t be married, older than 34 or heavier than 135 pounds, according to the rules of most US airlines. Even the term ‘hostess’ suggested she would be serving more than drinks.

By the 1960s, Continental Airlines’ pitch to passengers was ‘We really move our tail for you’ and in 1971 National Airlines published photographs of beautiful women with the tag line ‘I’m Cheryl. Fly Me.’ One of the newest professions for women was sounding like the oldest.

Air hostesses couldn’t be married, older than 34 or heavier than 135 pounds, according to the rules of most US airlines.

The unsexy nurse’s uniforms of green capes and white shoes were substituted for more fetching outfits. At the start of the 1960s leading designers like Oleg Cassini, Pierre Cardin and Balenciaga were dressing the crews of AirWest, Olympic Airways and Air France respectively. If you were a stewardess on Braniff, your Emilio Pucci-designed uniform of mini dress, leggings, gogo boots and bowler-style hat, all in wild jungle prints, was groovier than anything found on Carnaby Street. Qantas air hostesses were similarly Pucci’d-up from 1974-85. They were the front line troops of fabulousness.

In the 1970s the age restrictions were eliminated and airhostesses were permitted to get married. These days, if an airline wishes to discriminate against an applicant for being too heavy or too old, they’re likely to end up in court. (And just as well, because two of the loveliest flight attendants I ever experienced, on Hawaiian Airlines, were two kindly women well into their sixties.)

We still have Singapore Girls and the Virgin Atlantic vixens in red, regularly winning spurious polls that they’re the ‘hottest’ in the sky. But it has to be said that it’s equal opportunity sex over at Virgin – the male flight attendants pole dancing in a recent advertisement is a case in point.

When I was a little girl the idea of becoming an airhostess was up there with model and movie star, although I was warned by my mother they were merely ‘glorified waitresses.’ There’s no doubt the glamour image of the profession fell off when air travel became more affordable and hundreds of thousands of people started flying regularly, in conditions that often were more fraught than fabulous.

I imagine some flight attendants wish they were simply glorified waitresses. These days, they’re also expected to be security guards, luggage handlers, psychologists, medical officers, tour guides, babysitters, celebrity wranglers, engineers and janitors. They’re at the coalface of every bad mood, illness or hangover that passengers bring with them on board. They are expected to restrain terrorists, humour drunks, administer CPR and smile through bone-rattling turbulence. They have to absorb the anger of the whole cabin when the plane is held up on the runway, or the entertainment system breaks down or the toilets are blocked.

Yes, there are bored ones, and lazy ones and some of the young ones on new airlines in China are frighteningly detached. But, frankly, a good one is worth that 135 pounds in gold.

‘They’re flying to save us all,’ as a Virgin Atlantic advertisement proclaims, tongue-in-cheek.







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